The Carl Beam retrospective now at the National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center in Lower Manhattan could be a response to the museum itself. Located in the imposing Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, a monolithic reminder that New York City was originally built on European immigration, the museum presents artifacts and art by North America’s first people. Beam’s work likewise was always aimed at juxtaposing the modern culture of North America, a transformation of the country that he marked with the arrival of Columbus, with the traditional imagery of the American Indians. Neither the museum nor the influential Canadian artist’s work offers much harmony between these two clashing worlds, but in the resulting collage of Beam’s work is an engaging sort of turbulence.
Before traveling to New York, the touring retrospective was first staged at the National Gallery of Canada, which bought Beam’s “The North American Iceberg” in 1986, the first acquisition of a contemporary work for its collection by a First Nations, which is what Canadian’s call Native Americans, artist. “The North American Iceberg” is one of the first pieces I saw upon entering the exhibit, and it has all the elements that thread through the rest of the show. There are the depictions of First Nations people from the 19th century alongside photographs of space travel and a mugshot-like portrait of the artist himself. There are the stenciled proclamations and numbers measuring across and a rectangle bordered around everything, the only elements of strict order in the piece. There is the brutal application of paint that makes me think of different types of blood splatters, the colors taking on a charred and dirty color as they near the frame. It is a storm of thundering imagery battling for the viewer’s attention, the victor not at all clear.
The retrospective includes 50 of Beam’s works, starting in the late 1970s and continuing through to 2004. Beam passed away in 2005, but he is very much present in the museum space, both in his personal symbolism and in self-portraits embedded in his pieces, where often he stands broad and bare-chested. The artist definitely had some swagger, and it’s his confidently aggressive mixing of traditional and accessible contemporary visuals that gave his work such a wide appeal, at least in Canada.
However, I’d never come across his art in any exhibits in the United States before visiting this show at the Museum of the American Indian. Unfortunately, even though Beam’s art deserves or at the least demands attention, there were more bored security guards than visitors on my Sunday visit, and the messily bombastic work was the only “noise” in the stately museum.
Born in M’Chigeeng on Manitoulin Island, Beam’s Ojibwe heritage is the fiercest of the influences on his work, although he created his own coded symbolism that recurs with the regularity of a mantra. Elks from Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies race by traffic lights, hearts, diagramed birds, bumblebees and turtles that represent the traditional Anishinaabe story of the world being carried on the back of its shell. The artistic media is likewise always crashing together, with watercolor dripping over photo-emulsions or Beam’s scrawled writing, and skulls, feathers and even whole books being brought in as elements of form.
The exhibit travels through several chronological projects, including the washed out Columbus Project created between 1989 and 1992 addressing the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in North America; The Whale of Our Being of the early 2000’s with its Moby-Dick overtones drawing out feelings of ecological and societal doom; and Crossroads at the end of Beam’s career fixating on pop culture icons. There is also a series of ceramics based on his study of the ancient Anasazi and Mimbres pottery from the Southwest United States, although these felt more experimental and less self-assured than his two-dimensional works. There is one video piece, called “Burying the Ruler,” a blatant statement where Beam literally buries a ruler in the ground of the Dominican Republic near where the first European settlers landed, entombing the symbol of foreign domination over the country and its scale.
A retrospective must by its nature be comprehensive, yet the works do seem to weaken at the end of Beam’s career. Perhaps the fury that made his early work so reactionary to the long suppression of the American Indians and so easily adopted that assemblage energy of Pop art had subsided. The works in the late Crossroads series are more playful portraits of icons like Robert Johnson than visual commentary on the place these celebrities inhabit in Beams’ tornadic world.
Even with these late career falters, the show is a blistering look back on the career of an artist who was notable not only as someone opening doors for other First Nations artists, but grappling directly with how contemporary art can harness the tempest of North American history.
One of his earlier pieces, “Contain that Force,” states:
“Note well: contain any force that you might possess, you never know when they’ll be needed.”
That “force” could be an internal strength, but it could also be the European colonists containing the force of the American Indians. Or it could even be the US Custom House, built under a whole banner of regulations and rules, containing the imposing chaos of Carl Beam’s work in its columned walls.
Carl Beam is showing through April 15, 2012 at the National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center (1 Bowling Green, Financial District, Manhattan).